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10 key issues on Apple's new devices

16 Sep 2014  | Thomas Claburn

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The Apple Watch is the next chapter in Apple's story, says Apple CEO Tim Cook.

"We've been working incredibly hard for a long time on an entirely new product," he said during Apple's media event Sept. 9. "And we believe this product will redefine what people expect from its category."

In terms of quality, design, and capacity to delight, the Apple Watch appears likely to do that, once it actually ships. Expectations for wearable devices are fairly low. The watch's ability to share sketches, to function as a walkie-talkie, and to transmit taps and heartbeats translated into pulses should make it fun to wear. And for many Apple customers, that will be enough.

But as a general-purpose productivity and communication tool, it falls short of a smartphone or tablet. By definition, it must: It is an accessory that requires an iPhone for network connectivity, not a stand-alone device.

Apple Watch can do certain things well, like track activity, but so too can more specialised, less expensive devices like Fitbit. Scroll down the list of Apple Watch features on Apple's website and you'll find almost nothing Apple's iPhone 6 can't do. And the iPhone 6 will last longer while doing it, because of its larger battery.

The Apple Watch should tempt plenty of people, but not so many as Apple's iPhone, iPad, or iPod. It is just "one more thing" to manage among the many devices in our lives.

But Apple and all the other companies that have been thriving during the mobile boom have a problem: Battery technology has not advanced as fast as processors, memory, or other device components. The lack of power-hungry Wi-Fi and cellular radio hardware in the Apple Watch testifies to that fact. If important services like Siri could run locally instead of being tied to the cloud, Apple could avoid stuffing power-hungry radio circuitry into its mobile devices without requiring a smartphone for network access. But even if that were the case, Siri doesn't work flawlessly enough to displace manual controls. Apple could have dispensed with its watch's rotary dial control entirely if Siri could reliably understand and execute spoken commands.

The fact is no one yet has commercialised the technology necessary to create a product as transformational as the iPhone, a user-friendly, portable touch-based computer that makes phone calls! Technologies capable of powering the next revolution—like the ant-sized, self-powering radios recently developed by Stanford researchers—may be emerging in labs, but they have yet to make it to market.

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